The home I left more than three decades ago is no more. The houses I lived in are still there, but my childhood is long past.
My trips to my hometown are for funerals, wakes or cemetery visits.
Ten days ago, my brother, father, and I drove to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. That Saturday was a sunny day with a hint that spring may be coming.
For me, visiting my hometown of South Whitley is like stepping back in time, like the New Yorkers who accidentally discover Brigadoon in the musical of the same name. Those who live there surely do not romanticize it as I do; memory plays tricks. I see it as the town was in the early 1960s, almost like the painted storefronts used as props for the South Whitley High school reunions.
On a hot August afternoon, I’m riding my bike to Arnold’s Gas Station with my friends. I have a coin burning a hole in the pocket of my coral-colored Blue Bell jeans. I slide my dime in the coin drop of the chest freezer for a cold pop. Yes, we call it pop. Not soda, not coke (in the generic sense), but pop. At home, I am allowed only 7-Up, but at Arnold’s I get a forbidden Coca-Cola, chilled in a green glass bottle.
The Kent Theater is gone now, but I still see in my mind the sparkly front sidewalk and lighted marquee featuring “Herbie the Love Bug” or “Gone with the Wind.” My cousin and I sat transfixed and somewhat terrified in the small one-screen theater, watching the iconic Margaret Mitchell story. Tickets are fifty cents each, and long-time proprietor Vi LeBrun sells us popcorn in the traditional small cardboard red and white box for ten cents.
Where there is now a parking lot, I imagine the old South Whitley High School which graduated its last class in 1971. I picture the old-style gymnasium where community members of all ages performed in several wonderful Follies, and the Lion’s Club held its annual Cake Walk and Halloween contest.
I remember visiting my dad, who was the agriculture teacher, in the back wing with its shop and an intriguing sink with foot controls. My brother and I often helped Dad sort and staple homework assignments, or run the mimeograph machine in the office (where incidentally there was a Coca-Cola machine, away from my mother’s eyes.)
We drove past the little yellow house on Walnut Street where we lived until I was ten, and we moved to the country. Each summer my parents held my birthday party, complete with female classmates in party dresses, white socks, and Keds Red Ball Jets. Mom supervised games that involved string, toothpicks, apples and marshmallows, with a prize of penny candy from Baxter’s Dime Store.
Dad dragged in the picnic table from the back yard, and we feasted on Mrs. Hathaway’s homemade Angel Food cake with boiled icing. If they are feasting in heaven today, I swear it is on one of Blanche Hathaway’s homemade cakes!
Living in a small town has good and bad points. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be anywhere else. Seeing more of the world helped me figure something out.
For me, childrearing in a small town has more good than bad. My husband and I moved away after college and came back to Indiana, to another small town on the opposite end of the state. Our child grew up here in the wonderful town of Newburgh, and hopefully will have beloved memories. He also left the nest when he was eighteen for those greener pastures.
My trip two Saturdays ago brought back good memories, and somehow I forget or ignore those that are not so pleasant. Anyone who tells you they had a perfect childhood has a bad memory.
What makes good memories remain alive are the people who carved them, those friends still on terra firma who bring a smile to my face just by the mention of their names. On Saturday, we had lunch with four of them, lifelong friends of my family.
The old cliché says there are no friends like old friends. Though we were in town for just a few hours, we talked and laughed with these beloved people. While my grandmother and grandfather and mother are now gone, spending time with people who knew and loved them is a wonderful way to honor their memories.
The American writer Thomas Wolfe believed “You Can Never Go Home again.” I chose to repeat the entire quote here because it is worthy of thought,
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Wolfe certainly had experiences I did not, and he grew up in Asheville, North Carolina and I grew up in northeastern Indiana.
I chose another analogy, and I’ll stick with mine. Our lives are much like a garden, or a rich Indiana farm field. We nurture and care for our garden or farm, and are; wary of what the seasons bring. We often remove weeds to enjoy the beautiful flowers or reap the richness of harvest.
For me, the people in my hometown are the richness of the harvest, in its fullest sense.
― Thomas Wolfe, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” 1940 published after his death